While replying to myrlas' thread on how Rafa was making excuses and starting to sound like Houllier ca. 2003/04, I realised one of Rafa's strengths and why I think it will lead to us having a proper crack at the title with him at the helm. Namely, his ability to see flaws in the team and correct them.
I'll start by taking a look at Houllier's last year or so. By that point, it was painfully clear to the majority of fans that it was time for him to go; we all remember (and wince at) the comment about having way more corners than the opposition, and the post-match conferences where he described a game that it seemed only he was watching (while we had seen his team serve up yet another 90 minutes of insipid, lifeless junk).
A big part of the problem was that he seemed too stuck in his ways; there was always far too much emphasis on defence followed by a quick break, and not enough on varied attacking play. As a result we became one-dimensional and extremely easy for opposition teams to defend against.
This wasn't a one-off occurrence; through the majority of the last 2 years of his reign, pretty much every week we saw and heard the same old arguments about us only having a plan A, and when that went wrong we were stuffed.
Alas when GH tried to play a bit more attacking footy, it seemed to work for a couple of games, but as soon as we had a couple of bad results with it he seemed to lose faith and reverted to type. He couldn't adapt to counteract a glaring deficiency.
Fast forward to Rafa's tenure. Every season there has been something fairly evident wrong with the team, yet he has been flexible and adaptable with both the tactics and personnel to combat the weaknesses while still maintaining our strengths.
2004/05 saw some of our worst away performances in a long long time, with an unacceptably high number of defeats. Rafa worked out what was going wrong, and added Crouchy and Momo to the team. Say what you like about them now, but the following year, our away form dramatically improved and we went on to notch one of our highest points totals for many a year.
2005/2006 saw us go most of the season with everyone still crying out for at least one out-and-out winger, and the debate about Stevie's best position raging on. Rafa realised we were lacking a wide threat and did his best to get a winger in before that season, alas finance scuppered that happening. The following summer in came Pennant (who had an unimpressive start but went on to be MOTM in the Champions League Final. Not a bad achievement). Also, the fact the Kewell has been injured so long has also hampered Rafa in getting us to play with a genuine threat from wide positions.
On to 2006/07. Yet again we had bad away form (which this season has been remedied such that we have the best away form in the League), but the main problem was lack of bite up front. And to be fair it wasn't just in 06/07, that has been a constant theme throughout Rafa's time here.
The point I have been building up to throughout this post is the following: Rafa knows as well as you or I do that we need to improve our goalscoring threat. However, when building up a squad, that is one of the last things that you do, as it is one of the hardest, and also tends to cost the most. I firmly believe we are entering (in fact probably have already entered) that phase of Rafa's squad building at the moment.
In fact if you look at when Alex Ferguson first started overhauling Man Utd, his first really significant signings were Steve Bruce and Garry Pallister, alongside Paul Parker, and of course Schmeichel. They was followed by Roy Keane, who was arguably the most important of all, and it was only later when the explosive forward firepower was added. And of course that was helped by having a crop of extremely talented, home-grown players (Giggs, Beckham, Scholes et al) all come through the ranks having played with each other for years, and more importantly, free.
I see a lot of similarity in the way Rafa has built this squad compared to how Whiskeyface built his up, and given that we now have the majority of an excellent squad I think we will start to see Rafa focus a bit more on the attacking side of things, as we have already shown that we have a strong backbone and a midfield that more often than not dominates the opposition's. One major difference now being that Rafa can splash out a bit more on quality attackers, as the rest of the squad needs less attention.
The big difference between GH and Rafa is that I believe Benitez is adaptable enough to shift our emphasis to attacking football far more than Houllier was able to; for that reason I think Rafa is definitely the man to take us forward, and I expect the comments about us "dominating but not taking our chances" will become fewer and less vocal throughout this season and in seasons to come.